Interview with Amanda McCarty from Clotheshorse Podcast
Amanda McCarty is as authentic and switched-on as they come. A former fast fashion buyer, she is the founder of Clotheshorse Podcast, a podcast that uncovers the fashion industry and educates consumers on how to make the best decisions when buying fashion. She coined the tagline “You should never give your money to assholes”, she does not shy away from the truth (even if it's ugly) and her Instagram is an absolute treasure trove of information, and cute kittens! The fashion industry needs more people like Amanda and platforms like Clotheshorse, it was an absolute pleasure to find out more about what makes her tick.
Off the bat I’m going to ask you what fast fashion is like from the inside?
It’s not great. Okay, that’s actually an understatement. Most of my friends have worked in the industry in one capacity or another (design, planning, buying, production, merchandising) and because we are all elder millennials/xennials, we actually saw the shift into fast fashion happen during our careers. The big change? We worked faster and faster on more and more styles. And to keep these brands profitable, teams were often pared down, so many of us found ourselves doing the jobs of multiple people with no increase in pay. Few of my industry friends have ever had a work/life balance until leaving the industry.
I remember being about five years into my buying career and looking around the office. At that point, I worked for a big “hipster” fast fashion brand. Like every buying job I had afterwards, we sat in “open seating,” meaning no cubicles or offices. Just rows of people working at desks. Along one side of the building were offices. They were for the executives. Designers, buyers, and planners filled the open seating area. And all of us were women or non-binary. The offices were occupied by men. Just like that I had this lightbulb moment…”this industry is fueled by women–both as consumers and doing the actual work–while men lead and profit.” Nothing about that ever really changed. Most of my employers had little-to-no parental leave policy, we were always paid very little for the ‘privilege’ of a cool job, and we were often belittled and humiliated by executives. Fashion is a feminist issue in every single way: the majority of the workforce is female or nonbinary–from factories to offices to retail stores, and just about everyone is underpaid and overworked.
Were you always interested in sustainable fashion, or sustainability in general or is this a relatively new awareness?
I have always had very progressive political and ethical values, and that includes my feelings about environmental and social issues. This was very difficult to balance with my need to have a job. I come from a low income background. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, which is not known for fashion. But I always loved clothes. I never imagined a career in fashion because I did not know how something like that could even happen to me! I was always uncertain about what my adult life would be, but I knew that I had to be able to take care of myself. And fashion seemed like a career path for rich people. But somehow I was recruited to the buying department while working as a department manager in a store. Ironically, I was actually applying to nursing school when that happened. I took the opportunity because it felt like a dream I never knew I had was finally coming true. I was the first person recruited from the stores to the Home Office in more than a decade, and I had a lot to prove. Fortunately I am a hard worker and quick learner. I was always so grateful–and honestly, so desperate–for that job, that I couldn’t let myself think too hard about how fucked up that industry is.
But over time, it became difficult to ignore. I became incredibly aware of the negative impact of the industry that employed me. And as I began to really unpack and process that, I began to see how and why this industry was hurting everyone and everything. All of us are experiencing the repercussions of fast fashion, no matter where we live or work: microplastics in the water, soil, and food supply, water scarcity, the impact of carbon emissions, and even the emotionally corrosive nature of a steady stream of low quality/poor fitting clothing.
You have a podcast and an Instagram with 27.5K followers. I can see by the comments on your Clotheshorse Instagram posts that people are engaged in your topic and wanting to listen. What made you take that leap from fast fashion to podcast host and Instagram guru?
Honestly, it still surprises me every single day that people are interested in hearing what I have to say! I definitely grew up in an environment where being silent was always the safest route. And as I grew into an adult, I was acutely aware that the men around me–regardless of how liberal their politics were–did not want to hear what a young woman had to say. I am non-binary person and I realized that about ten years ago. However, to the average person who doesn’t know me or hasn’t asked my pronouns, I’m a lady with really long hair and a pretty dress. And our society has a lot of work to do in terms of giving a platform to anyone who isn’t a cis white male. Throughout my adult life, anytime anyone has asked me what I do for a living, and I’ve replied “I work as a buyer in the fashion industry,” they automatically dismiss me as vapid or as someone who “goes shopping for a living.” But the truth is, I have spent close to 20 years engaged in lots of data analysis, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.
I definitely never imagined that Clotheshorse would exist. I am a big fan of podcasts and Instagram, but always as a passive observer. My husband and I had always joked that we were going to start a podcast that would dissect the 1991 Oliver Stone film, The Doors, because it is both ridiculous and highly entertaining. But we never actually did any work to do it.
In 2020, my life changed in many huge ways, just like everyone else. At that point, we were living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We had moved there in 2018 so I could help launch a new rental platform owned by a larger fast fashion company. I made that move with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. I was so excited to work on a project that would help so many people dress in a more sustainable way. But by the time we were sent home to work in mid-March, I was so unhappy. The company culture was really toxic (although it pretended otherwise), the rental industry wasn’t actually as sustainable as I thought, and to be honest, I was having a lonely, miserable time living in Philadelphia. It just wasn’t right for me.
I was initially furloughed at the beginning of April. For the previous two weeks, I had been canceling every order we had placed for the year, even if it was ready to ship or the product was already made. It struck me as really unethical because I knew the company had the money to pay for these orders. And I knew that when orders are canceled like that, people lose their jobs. People don’t get paid. The most vulnerable people along that supply chain–the factory workers–are thrust into precarious financial circumstances that can make them the target of abuse and violence. So it all felt super wrong to me. I spent hours on the phone with sales reps and brand owners while they cried and begged. It was everything that I hated about that industry all at once.
And then I was laid off, given two weeks of severance, and lost my health insurance in the middle of a global pandemic. One week later, my employer posted a “surprise” profit of $34 million for that quarter. That entire profit was made of lost wages: garment workers, corporate employees like myself, and store employees that sat at home worrying what would happen next. I had already been working on Clotheshorse when this happened, but that motivated me to get really serious and throw all of myself into it.
You don’t shy away from controversy. Do you find most people are responsive to this approach or does the backlash on Clotheshorse get to you?
Okay, I’m going to be very honest here and say that every time I post something on Instagram, I take a deep breath and hope for the best. Because wow, the internet is full of some really ugly stuff. I don’t specifically look for controversy. Over the years I have received threats of violence, transphobic messages, really horrible comments about my body and appearance, and just generally misogynistic messages.
My posts and podcast episodes focus on two things: facts and authenticity. That means I am brutally honest (even when it is difficult) and I do a lot of research and analysis to get to the bottom of complicated issues. I think the Clotheshorse community can see and appreciate both of those qualities and they respond to it!
That said, I still deal with a lot of nasty and trollish behavior. I used to be apprehensive about blocking someone–because it felt like censoring–but now I realize that Clotheshorse is MY space. I built it from the ground up, all by myself. And just as (I hope) no one would show up at my actual house to say mean things to me, I don’t think it is okay to treat me that way on social media. And really, everyone reading this should exercise that same policy!
Let’s talk about greenwashing which you address a lot on Clotheshorse. It’s everywhere and a lot of people don’t know when it’s happening to them. Do you have any advice to detect that it is being used on us?
The good news about greenwashing, everyone uses the same tricks! And once you are aware of them, you see them everywhere around you!
Here are recommendations for being a successful “greenwashing detective:”
- Read the labels and read all the details on the product website. If I encounter a fabric that I don’t know, I google its name and greenwashing to get to the truth.
- Avoid vague words that have no measurable meaning like natural, green, or eco friendly.
- Research certifications and organizations that brands throw out. Just google the name of the certification followed by the word “greenwashing.”
- Background check retailers and brands. Use Good On You or Remake’s Transparency Report.
- Ask questions of retailers and brands. Confused about a product? Just ask!
- And lastly...buy less, opt for secondhand first, and make your stuff last!
Now onto capitalism which is also something you address a lot on Clotheshorse. Do you think there could be a fashion industry without capitalism? If so, what would it look like to you?
I think it’s important to remember that fashion is a form of art and style is a personal creative expression. Capitalism turned both of these into massive industries, destroying the personal nature of them along the way. I think there is an opportunity to reclaim the creativity of clothing from these huge companies. We need to make clothing more personal again, more special…and a big part of that is slowing down the process of consuming clothing. When we buy less and wear it a lot longer, we get more opportunities to flex our creative muscles by finding new ways to wear things.
I think the future of fashion is circular: wearing things longer, wearing them in new ways, passing them on to new owners when we want/need to move on. There is so much creativity and art to be found within that model. When the focus is no longer buying and selling as much as possible, fashion can actually return to its creative origins.
What do you think is the most common obstacle for someone wanting to support sustainable fashion and what advice does Clotheshorse have for this person?
I think the most common obstacles are price, availability of sizes, and aesthetic. We still need so much more diversity in terms of sizing and aesthetic in the slow fashion realm. I am seeing more and more of that happening, but we have a long way to go. There are many people who are just not being served by the current sustainable fashion landscape.
When it comes to price as the primary obstacle, I always ask people to unpack the value of a garment. If you’re planning to wear something often and for a long time, the price per wear becomes very low. And while fast fashion might be less expensive, you will get a lot less wear out of it. Is the value really there? Probably not. For all of its “dealz dealz dealz,” fast fashion is often a bad deal for everyone involved, from the workers to the customers.
The last thing–and this is something almost all of us need to rethink–the fast fashion era has taught us to prefer quantity over quality. The goal is always lots of clothes, not just a few things that we really love. That’s a hard line of thinking to change! But ultimately, none of us needs a haul of clothing. We don’t need full closets or 100s of items to choose from every day. When we recognize that we only need this much smaller group of clothing, suddenly things are more affordable to us because we only buy one thing, not ten.
I’m interested to know your thoughts about the smaller, independent brands that are emerging. Can these guys change the industry, or is it just more clothes added into the already overflowing pot?
I think that small business is the future. And therefore, I am really supportive of small brands. They have the ability to build a business from the ground up that is more ethical and sustainable. They have the opportunity to break the standard fashion industry goal of exponential growth! That said…overconsumption of slow fashion is still…overconsumption.
I have to ask, who does all of your retro artwork on Clotheshorse? I’m smitten with the kitchiness of it all!
All of my artwork is found vintage art from greeting cards, books, magazines, etc. As an avid lifelong thrifter, I have a pretty incredible collection of all of these things. I scan and edit them to make them usable, then I use an app called Figma to design my posts.
Have you got a book that has been a game changer for you, something you think we should all read?
I have a few to recommend (and they all tie back to the relationship between capitalism and overconsumption):
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need by Juliet B. Schor
Consumed: The Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber: In my opinion, the best book out there about fast fashion and why we all need to make these important changes!
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I survived childhood cancer. I was always kind of embarrassed about that. Why? I don’t know! I spent a lot of time in the hospital growing up and I was always sick in one way or another. I escaped from that by reading, often several books each day. This is where my hunger for knowledge began. And all of those books exposed me to lives so different from my own. I developed a lot of empathy which grew into a hunger for justice in a wildly unfair world. It turned me into a speed reader (which is a little bit of a curse when you are really loving a book). And I also think it helped me take information and assemble it as stories that will resonate with others. So in a weird way, I don’t think I would be making Clotheshorse if I hadn’t been sick as a child.